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World roundup: October 24 2023
Stories from Israel-Palestine, China, Gabon, and elsewhere
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TODAY IN HISTORY
October 24, 1648: The Peace of Westphalia (mostly) ends the Thirty Years’ War. The settlement reinforced the idea that the Holy Roman Emperor could not dictate religious terms on the empire’s constituent states but also repudiated the idea that state sovereigns had the right to compel their subjects to adopt said sovereign’s chosen religion. It also made Calvinism a legally recognized variant of Christianity and established the legal equality of Catholics and Lutherans. Many IR scholars credit Westphalia with reifying the concept of national sovereignty, with its emphasis on the sanctity of national borders and the principle of non-interference in domestic affairs—hence the term “Westphalian sovereignty.”
October 24, 1912: In the same day, the Ottoman Empire suffers two decisive defeats, one to a Bulgarian army in the Battle of Kirk Kilisse in modern Turkey and the other to a Serbian army in the Battle of Kumanovo in modern North Macedonia. The simultaneous defeats set the tone for the First Balkan War, which had begun on October 8 and would end in May 1913 with a decisive victory for the Balkan League (Bulgaria, Greece, Montenegro, and Serbia). The Bulgarian victory at Kirk Kilisse gave its armies an open path to Istanbul, though in two battles at Çatalca (on the outskirts of the city) in November and then in February-April, the Ottomans were able first to stop and then to rout the Bulgarian offensive. Thus, although they lost the war, the Ottomans were able to defend their capital and preserve what was left of their empire.
A study published in the journal Nature Climate Change earlier this week suggests that significant glacier melting in western Antarctica may now be “unavoidable” because of warming ocean water. If true that means that substantial sea level rise is now likely locked in even if humanity abruptly decides to start taking climate change seriously—and, spoiler alert, we’re not going to do that. Western Antarctica is home to the Thwaites glacier, affectionately known as the “Doomsday Glacier” because if it melts completely it alone will raise global sea levels by about ten feet.
In Gaza news:
Gazan health officials claimed that another 700 people were killed in Israeli airstrikes overnight and through Tuesday. If their figures are to be believed the overall death toll in Gaza since October 7 has now risen beyond 5700. I know a number of commentators have suggested that Gazan casualty claims cannot be believed because we can’t be sure they’re not being manipulated by Hamas. This is a reasonable objection, though for the record it’s one I would also raise with respect to unconfirmed casualty claims offered by, say, the Israeli or US governments. The thing is, Israeli officials themselves say they carried out a whopping 400 strikes on Gaza on Tuesday and in that context 700 deaths doesn’t seem all that unrealistic. And even if the official 5700+ figure is artificially inflated, the likelihood of large numbers of undiscovered bodies still lying underneath all the rubble that now fills Gaza means the official figure might not be a bad approximation for reality anyway.
Also, let’s be honest, most of the “you can’t trust the casualty figures” discourse comes from folks who don’t actually care about the real figures but just want to absolve the Israeli military for political reasons. A good faith effort to independently determine the level of casualties would be great but it would require a ceasefire at a minimum, and clearly that’s not going to happen.
United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres reiterated his call for a ceasefire during a UN Security Council meeting about Gaza on Tuesday. Because he did that that, because he criticized Israel’s conduct of the war (along with the October 7 militant attacks), and because he noted that this latest crisis should be placed in its proper historical context, the Israeli government is now demanding that Guterres resign.
Biden administration national security spokesperson John Kirby told reporters on Tuesday that “a ceasefire right now really only benefits Hamas,” and that “only” there is about as clear an admission as you’ll get that the US government only regards Palestinian civilians as real human beings in the most abstract of senses. The administration is now pushing the alternative of “humanitarian pauses,” which would oblige the Israelis to agree to stop bombing in specific places and at specific times but would allow them to keep the bombing campaign going otherwise. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said at the UN that such pauses “must be considered,” which would be easier to take seriously if his UN ambassador hadn’t vetoed a UNSC resolution calling for humanitarian pauses less than a week ago.
Back inside Gaza, hundreds (or thousands) of dual nationals remain massed at the Rafah checkpoint in hopes that one of these days, when it opens for one of those meager humanitarian aid shipments coming in, it will also open in the other direction to allow them to evacuate. Suffice to say many of them have noticed that the countries whose passports they hold are making special efforts to evacuate their citizens from Israel but have done next to nothing to get them out of Gaza. An increasingly testy Egyptian government says it is working with other governments to try to implement an evacuation but the ongoing threat of Israeli strikes on Rafah is a major impediment.
Egyptian officials also say they’re “keen” to increase the flow of humanitarian aid into Gaza but those Israeli airstrikes are thwarting that as well. I think it’s best to listen to these criticisms while bearing in mind that the Egyptian government is worried that this war may radicalize portions of its own citizenry and is trying to show the domestic audience that it is doing everything it can to support the Palestinians. There is a substantial historical record of Palestinian issues resonating in Egyptian politics to the detriment of the incumbent government.
Doctors in Gaza say that many of the hundreds of thousands of now-displaced Gazan residents are beginning to show signs of illnesses linked to overcrowding and poor sanitation. Hospitals are already completely overtaxed and are running out of generator fuel so the prospects for these people getting anything close to adequate medical care are slim at best, even if the rate of humanitarian aid deliveries does increase to meet the need.
Visiting Israel on Tuesday, French President Emmanuel Macron pitched the idea of expanding the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS’s mandate to include defeating Hamas too. Macron’s comments forced his advisers to quickly tamp down any notion of international forces joining the assault on Gaza, arguing that the coalition could contribute in less kinetic ways by, say, training Israeli forces or closing down Hamas’s financial pathways. Leaving aside the uncomfortable fact that the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS still hasn’t fully defeated ISIS and might want to focus on that before it takes on new challenges, the fact of the matter is that these two organizations are not comparable. Islamic State was/is generally despised in the Middle East outside of a fringe. Like it or not there’s no such regional consensus about Hamas, and it’s reasonable to assume that several members of the coalition would reject using it in this manner.
Egyptian officials aren’t the only ones who seemed to be getting testy on day 18 of this cataclysm. Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani spoke to Qatar’s Consultative Assembly on Tuesday and railed against governments supporting Israel for giving its leaders “an unconditional green light and free license to kill.” Tamim went on to argue, among other things, that “it should not be allowed in our time to use cutting off water and preventing medicine and food as weapons against an entire population.” His comments are potentially significant in that he’s gotten out in front of the rest of the Gulf monarchs in terms of condemning the war and they may now feel pressured to keep up, which could in turn increase pressure on a US government that is still hoping to keep its Middle Eastern ducks more or less in a row in spite of this situation.
Russian airstrikes killed at least six civilians in a displaced persons camp in northwestern Syria’s Idlib province on Tuesday, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. It’s gotten lost amid the Gaza war but violence in Idlib has been on the rise since the drone strike on a Syrian military academy graduation earlier this month, even though there’s still no indication who was responsible for that attack.
Elsewhere, the Israeli military carried out strikes against what it called “military infrastructure” early Wednesday in response to apparent cross-border shelling from Syria the previous day. It’s unusual for the Israelis to openly acknowledge attacking targets in Syria but I’m sure they’re hoping to deter additional shelling by making a forceful statement.
The Biden administration is accusing the Iranian government of “actively facilitating” recent attacks targeting US military personnel in Iraq and Syria, while stopping short of accusing Tehran of direct involvement in any specific incident. US officials say they’ve counted 13 such attacks over the past week—not including the “false alarm” on Thursday in which a US contractor died of a heart attack at Iraq’s Ayn al-Asad airbase—and in response the US military is reportedly increasing its surveillance activities in both countries.
Blinken told the UNSC on Tuesday that the US is prepared to defend its “people” and “security,” sending a signal to the Iranians to rein in their regional clients. The administration also said on Tuesday that it’s begun “contingency planning” for a potential mass evacuation of US nationals out of the Middle East in what I assume would be the worst case scenario. So that sounds fun. One might point out that the US could potentially reduce the chances of a region-wide war by, you know, pulling its troops out of Syria and Iraq now, since they’re not really doing anything apart from squatting in either place these days. But that’s not going to happen so it doesn’t make much sense to waste time debating it.
The Armenian government summoned Russia’s ambassador in Yerevan on Tuesday to complain about a program that aired on Russian state television the previous day in which “insulting and totally unacceptable statements” were made about Armenian leaders including Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. I gather the main thrust of the statements was to blame Pashinyan, rather than do-nothing Russian peacekeepers, for Azerbaijan’s takeover of the Nagorno-Karabakh region last month.
The Chinese government officially announced the firing of former Defense Minister Li Shangfu on Tuesday, which was somewhat anticlimactic inasmuch as Li hasn’t been seen in public in around two months and his sacking was already assumed. There’s been no formal rationale given for the dismissal but it’s been reported that Li is under investigation on corruption allegations stemming from his time as the head of the Chinese military’s Equipment Development Department. Li was also dismissed from his position as a state councilor, as was former Foreign Minister Qin Gang. As you may recall, Qin lost his ministerial gig back in July under circumstances that remain somewhat murky but may have involved an alleged extramarital affair during his time as China’s ambassador to the US.
The Malian army on Tuesday accused UN peacekeepers of rushing their pullouts from two facilities in northern Mali’s Kidal region in recent days. Far be it from me to defend the UN on, well, pretty much anything, but the reason the peacekeepers are pulling out so abruptly from these facilities is because Mali’s military government is demanding that they be out of the country altogether by the end of the year. But I digress. The army says that Monday’s withdrawal from an outpost in Aguelhok was so rushed it gave “terrorists” an opening to enter the facility and destroy parts of it. There’s no indication who these “terrorists” were, but I think there’s an implication here that the UN did this intentionally. The junta is presumably setting the UN up to take the blame if the peacekeepers’ withdrawal doesn’t go well.
“An unknown armed group” has reportedly kidnapped some 50 people in two recent incidents (one on Sunday, the other on Monday) near the Chadian border in northern Cameroon. Apparently kidnappings are not uncommon in that region, but mass kidnappings like this are. Islamist militants from Nigeria have operated in northern Cameroon in the past but these incidents took place some distance from the Nigerian border so I’m not sure they make sense as a potential culprit.
The Biden administration on Tuesday officially designated the August military coup in Gabon as a coup, which means that by law it was required to suspend most US military and financial aid to the country. The administration had frozen that aid after the coup anyway so this announcement simply makes things more permanent. I’m sure the aid will be resumed once Gabon has transitioned back to some facsimile of democratic rule. Unlike the still-controversial coup in Niger back in July, nobody really seems to be mourning the ouster of former Gabonese President Ali Bongo Ondimba very much, apart from Bongo himself maybe. Nevertheless, not declaring this obvious coup as a coup may have further undermined whatever credibility the US government still has.
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO
Allied Democratic Forces fighters are believed to have been responsible for an attack in the city of Oicha in the eastern DRC’s North Kivu province on Monday that left at least 26 people dead. Local officials say that most of the victims were killed in their homes and they expect the death toll to rise as recovery work continues. Elsewhere in North Kivu, fighting between the M23 militia and pro-government militias was reported within 20 kilometers of the provincial capital, Goma, on Tuesday. Officially M23 and Congolese security forces are abiding by a ceasefire, but the government has been arming local militias as proxies to try to dislodge M23 from some of the territory it’s captured. It’s hard to know for sure but I gather from Tuesday’s news that this effort isn’t going terribly well.
Vladimir Putin is fine, according to the Kremlin, which responded on Tuesday to those sketchy claims that he’d suffered a cardiac arrest over the weekend. Also he apparently doesn’t use body doubles, despite persistent rumors to the contrary. Neither Putin nor any of his alleged body doubles made any public appearances on Tuesday as far as I know.
The Russian military is continuing to pressure the Ukrainian cities of Avdiivka, in Donetsk oblast, and Kupyansk, in Kharkiv oblast. If that sounds like we’re in reruns that’s because this is pretty much where things have stood for several weeks now. In terms of new developments Ukrainian officials reported on Tuesday that the Russians had pulled back a bit from Avdiivka and were relying more heavily on airstrikes, while Ukrainian army commander Oleksandr Syrsky said that the situation around Kupyansk had “worsened significantly.” Russian forces are apparently trying to encircle that city but it’s unclear how much progress they’ve made.
Polish opposition leader Donald Tusk said on Tuesday that he and his coalition partners, who won a collective majority in the parliamentary election earlier this month, are ready to form a government. Tusk is surely trying to pressure Polish President Andrzej Duda to move quickly to choose a new government. Duda favors the Law and Justice Party, which leads Poland’s outgoing coalition government, and since Law and Justice remains the largest single party in parliament it seems likely he’ll give it first crack at forming a government. The math is decidedly not in Law and Justice’s favor but Duda could drag the process out regardless.
Finnish authorities say they believe the anchor of a Chinese container ship, the Newnew Polar Bear, was responsible for severing the Balticconnector gas pipeline that runs between Finland and Estonia earlier this month. They say they’ve recovered the anchor, which must have detached from the ship, and that there are markings on it consistent with having come into contact with the pipeline, which runs along the floor of the Baltic Sea. There doesn’t seem to be any indication as yet that this was an intentional act, but investigators are still working on that part of the case. Nearby telecommunications cables were also cut and it’s reasonable to conclude the anchor was responsible for that as well.
Former Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico is set to become new Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico on Wednesday. After initially raising objections to the designation of a climate denier as future environment minister, President Zuzana Čaputová gave final approval to a new cabinet on Tuesday that included a different environment minister-designate.
Spain’s Socialist Party and the leftist Sumar alliance announced a coalition agreement of their own on Tuesday. This was expected and is a necessary precondition toward the formation of a Socialist-led government, but the two blocs together are short of a majority in the Congress of Deputies. Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez is still negotiating to win the support of Catalan separatist parties, which at this point seems like it will hinge on his willingness to pardon anyone who was involved in Catalonia’s 2017 secession referendum. If Sánchez cannot cut a deal with the Catalans then lucky duck Spanish voters will get to vote again in a January snap election.
Kenya’s High Court is preventing the deployment of Kenyan police officers to lead a UN-authorized intervention to deal with gang violence in Haiti. Kenyan President William Ruto volunteered his police force to lead that mission earlier this year but his political opponents have challenged his authority to do so under Kenya’s constitution. The court is planning to rule on that challenge on November 9 and has barred the deployment until then.
Finally, Chartbook’s Adam Tooze breaks down the Biden administration’s “self-deluding” vision of “American leadership”:
The President wasn’t just improvising. He has not done a lot of speeches from the Oval Office. A speech-writing team crafted that extraordinary line.
It reflects deeply held views on the part of Washington. Back in February 2021, the newly appointed Secretary of State Antony Blinken gave several speeches and interviews in which he repeated the line:
The world doesn’t organize itself. When we’re not engaged, when we don’t lead, then one of two things happens: either some other country tries to take our place, but probably not in a way that advances our interests and values, or no one does, and then you get chaos.
This idea, that there is a “place” in the world, which is that of “America as the organizer”, and that without America occupying that place and doing its job, the world will fall apart, or some other power will take America’s place as the organizer, is deep-seated in US policy circles.
As a metaphysical proposition it is silly and self-deluding. It is bizarre to imagine that the world needs America to “hold it together”. America itself is hardly in one piece.
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